Obama to Hispanics: Eight words of promise, three years of raids

Three years ago, on election night in Grant Park, the new president-elect famously offered his constituencies a blank slate, onto which each group was invited to write the message of its choice. For Hispanics, the words in chalk to which we’d pinned our hopes consisted of Obama’s promise to make immigration reform a “top priority in my first year as president.”

Those eight words convinced 67 percent of my fellow Hispanics that, at long last, 11 million of our relatives, our friends, our brothers and sisters would soon come out of the shadows. With intelligent immigration reform, many hoped that the needless guilt, hostility and suspicion each of us has endured would end as well.

It wasn’t just Hispanics who were buoyed by Obama’s promise. For the families whose children we diaper, the seniors we lift into wheelchairs and feed, the restaurant patrons whose plates we wash and the consumers whose fruits and vegetables we harvest, President Obama’s eight-word promise provided hope that a broken system of immigration would at long last undergo a complete overhaul.

In the Hispanic culture, words matter — promises most of all — and Hispanics took the president’s words to heart. Hispanics were instrumental in delivering 46 of the electoral votes (in key states like Colorado, Florida, New Mexico and Nevada) that put Obama in the White House.

Three years later, Hispanics have learned that with Obama, promises written in chalk can easily be erased. The president who promised to make immigration reform a “top priority” is on track to reach his goal of deporting more Hispanics in his first term than George W. Bush did in two.

The Obama administration has gone about the business of enforcing our broken immigration system with a cold efficiency that has caused fear throughout the Hispanic community and among job creators, as employers justifiably fear a government raid every time a Latino applies for a job.

Obama’s deputies have ramped up a program of so-called “silent raids” — random, unscheduled inspections to measure whether employers have dotted all the I’s and crossed all the T’s of the government’s Form I-9 paperwork requirements for new hires.

There have been 2,900 of these raids (sometimes called “paper raids”) since Obama took office. They’ve cost job creators $3 million in civil fines and have led to the firings of thousands. Government agents direct companies to fire every employee for whom hyper-perfect compliance with Form I-9 is not immediately provable, even those who are not working at the time of the raid.

In an effort to appease nativist anti-immigration voters, Obama has also proceeded apace with enforcement of the Bush-era “Secure Communities” program, which requires that the fingerprints of every person booked into jail be checked against a federal database of immigration violators.

While the administration asserts that the program targets “dangerous criminals,” a 2008 Boston pilot study showed that 54 percent of the deportees had no criminal violations at all, and just 1 in 4 had been convicted of a serious crime. The net has been cast so wide that even Democratic governors in Massachusetts, New York and Obama’s adopted state of Illinois have opted out.

Meanwhile, Obama’s cynical, half-hearted handling of the DREAM Act in 2010 helped kill it in the Democratic-controlled Senate. The act, had the president invested his political capital into it, would have extended a lifeline to hundreds of thousands of Hispanic youngsters, Americans in every way, who came to the United States as children, obeyed the law, completed high school or served honorably in uniform.

Small wonder that the president’s approval rating among Hispanics has flat-lined at 48-50 percent, 12 points below his 60 percent approval rating in January. In fact, a recent Pew Research Center study showed 59 percent of Latinos disapprove of the manner that the president has handled deportations.

The president may soon find that among Hispanics, three years of inaction speaks louder than eight words.

Jacob Montilijo Monty is a Houston-based attorney specializing in labor and immigration matters and a prominent Latino activist.